Ken Early: Cruel contrast at the Aviva as O'Neill's Ireland stagnate

On a week when Irish rugby has scaled rare heights, football is sinking to a new low

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane and manager Martin O’Neill at the Aviva Stadium for the game against Northern Ireland. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane and manager Martin O’Neill at the Aviva Stadium for the game against Northern Ireland. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

As the final whistle went at the Aviva last Thursday night you glanced up to see the home stands were already mostly empty, with what was left of the crowd rapidly draining away up the stairwells. Some 48 hours later the blast of another final whistle at the same stadium triggered a riot of ecstasy, as Ireland celebrated victory over the All Blacks.

The contrast could not have been more cruel.

In one sport an all-Ireland side beats the best team in the world for the second time in three attempts, while in the other, the two pieces of partitioned Ireland cannot even score against themselves.

In the spring of 2015 I wrote an article on the rivalry in Ireland between football and rugby, the thrust of which was that the footballers were relatively hard done by in terms of the credit they received from the Irish media and public.

“It’s easier to be the best in the world when the ‘world’ encompasses eight or nine countries,” I wrote. “People anchor their judgment of the quality of a player around the results of the team they play in. Ireland’s rugby results have been good, so the players get respect, recognition and praise.

“The soccer results have not been so good, so the players are dismissed as mediocre. The gigantic pyramid of competition every professional footballer has to scale in order to reach international level is seldom taken into account. A lot of people don’t realise how brilliant you have to be to become a merely mediocre footballer.”

The basic point remains as true today as it was in 2015: the world of international soccer is bigger, badder, and more competitive than that of international rugby. But it’s no longer possible to sustain any kind of argument that Irish football is making a respectable fist of competing in that more demanding international landscape.

We all understand that rugby has certain structural and economic advantages. Irish rugby players can have top-level professional careers based at home, whereas our footballers are still exported on the hoof to a primary market in England where they are increasingly viewed as an inferior product.

As Michael O’Neill told Michael Walker in an Irish Times interview last month: “What do they [English clubs] associate Irish players with? Is it technical ability? There’s always our fighting spirit . . .”

By contrast, Irish rugby is showcasing athletes who are as strong, skilful and tactically intelligent as anyone else out there. With young stars like Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour, rugby is proving that these days Irishmen can even be fast.

As noted by this paper’s Emmet Malone last week, young Irish rugby players can often avail of top gym facilities in the wealthy private schools that produce many of the players, while the facilities available to most young footballers remain comparatively underfunded and ramshackle.

Outdated thinking

The FAI’s struggles have not helped. One way to judge the dynamism of John Delaney’s 13-year regime is to compare how the FAI’s finances have fared relative to the IRFU’s over the last decade.

In 2007, the IRFU turned over €48 million and the FAI €45 million. By 2017, the IRFU’s turnover had grown 82 per cent, to €85 million, while the FAI’s had grown 9 per cent, to €49 million.

Over the course of this year it has become evident that the big-picture stagnation of Irish football has been compounded by stagnant and outdated thinking at the top of the national team.

When O’Neill was asked why his team had failed to score in the last three matches, he said again that the squad lacks a “goalscorer”

Compare how the two national coaches, Joe Schmidt and Martin O’Neill, analysed their teams’ performances over the last few days.

When O’Neill was asked why his team had failed to score in the last three matches, he said again that the squad lacks a “goalscorer”.

If you offered such a banal answer as a TV pundit the station would be unlikely to ask you back. Yet this has been O’Neill’s go-to explanation for months.

O’Neill agreed with a suggestion that the players are not showing enough personality out on the field.

“It’s not to do with tactics,” he said. “It’s to do with taking the game by the scruff of the neck and being the character to do that.”

Yet for top coaches these days, the nebulous concept of “personality” has everything to do with tactics. How can players be expected to show conviction and character if they lack a clear concept of what they are supposed to do?

Think about the move that led to Ireland’s try against New Zealand. The chance was created by a sudden switch of direction in midfield that wrongfooted the All Black defence and created space on the left for Jacob Stockdale to attack.

Ireland did not score this try because the great Stockdale had the personality to take the game by the scruff of the neck and bend it to his will by sheer force of character. Stockdale was playing his part in a choreographed team move that Ireland had practiced many times in training. Joe Schmidt had spotted the play while prospecting for ideas in New Zealand provincial rugby.

“I’m always on the look-out and always keeping my eye out,” Schmidt said on Saturday. “I watch the Mitre 10 Cup, and they’ve always got a couple of good ones. There was a good one recently that the Highlanders played and I said to the coaches, ‘Maybe we can do this’.”

Sucker punch

Pep Guardiola is not known to be a rugby fan but he would have loved the Stockdale try.

Marti Perarnau describes how Pep told his Bayern players in 2014: “In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.

Charlton's tactics were not to everybody's taste but at least he had a clear idea of what he wanted his players to do

“And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be.”

The understanding that what works in one sport can be put to good use in another explains why England rugby coach Eddie Jones travelled to Munich to study Bayern’s training under Guardiola. A similar impulse drives amateur GAA players to learn basketball tactics to help them play better Gaelic football.

There was a time when Irish football, too, was tactically forward-looking. Jack Charlton went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and came back full of ideas about how to counter the prevailing orthodoxies; if everyone else was going to use a slow build-up and a playmaker, Ireland would use long balls to turn the full-backs and apply pressure high up the pitch.

Charlton’s tactics were not to everyone’s taste, but at least he had a clear idea of what he wanted his players to do, and that clarity might have something to do with the personality and character they became famous for.

Charlton understood that if a small country like Ireland is going to succeed, they need an idea. It’s a lesson that the current generation of Irish football leaders have forgotten.

And so we drift on, wondering why our players no longer seem to have any personality, and blaming our inability to score on the lack of a magical goalscorer, rather than the lack of a plan.

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